“It is different enough to my normal experience but also quite magical and soothing,” she says. “It’s something to entertain me now that doesn’t require anything of me, it stops me from thinking about other things and it is so pleasant to listen to that I have no time for the what-ifs.”
When she helps her daughters, aged 7 and 9, with remote learning during the day, Robertsturns to uplifting classical music to assist with focus. Bach, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky are popular choices.
And Roberts isn’t alone when it comes to turning to ambient sounds and relaxing music to help manage stress and anxiety.
According to music psychologist Professor Sarah Wilson from the University of Melbourne, music affects us by changing our state of arousal and shifting our mood.
“What we know is that music is really good at helping us shift from one state to another,” she says. “Research shows that music affects us along two main dimensions: one is arousal and one is valence. If you can imagine the arousal axis being Y and valence being the X axis, the two lines that cross is our mood.
“By valence, what we mean is the actual mood conveyed by the music whether it is negative and sad or happy and makes us excited.”
People can use upbeat, cheerful music to heighten their arousal levels and lift their mood, says Professor Wilson.“It is a very healthy way to manage anxiety because it doesn’t have you taking any substances, legal or otherwise, it is readily available and accessible and it provides us with a personal choice.”
Sydney screenwriter Dan Bennettsays he has found himself turning to rain sounds at various points during the day to decrease his anxiety.
“Rain used to hit on the window in the front bedroom quite a bit in my family home,” he says, “so I have always associated that sound with home. You always feel a bit safer and relaxed when you are with your family.
“I don’t know what it is, but I find it super relaxing… It is definitely better than reaching for a bottle of vodka or eating a whole pizza.”
Clinical psychologist Professor Caroline Hunt says that while there is little research on the effects of ambient sounds in managing anxiety, there are benefits – particularly those brought about by the repetitive nature of sounds like rain and waves.
“There can be a meditative nature in that kind of repetition, and focusing on something that is fairly repetitive can provide a sense of calm,” she says. “The other thing about these ambient sounds is they do, to some extent, capture the attention and that can take the focus away from less helpful thoughts and worrying. That repetition can help people focus on being in the moment.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling or needs support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit beyondblue.org.au.
Nathanael Cooper is a senior culture writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age with a focus on music.